Asking For Help From Your Customers

There’s a trap that a lot of companies fall into. In one way or another – whether it’s surveys, or forums, or focus groups, or whatever – companies ask their customers or users for feedback, suggestions, “ways to make things better”. This, in and of itself, is awesome. It’s how companies can best determine what their paying customers are looking for, direct feedback-loop closure from the people who pay the bills to make it all possible.

But too many companies – both ones I’ve worked for and ones I’ve been a customer of – will respond to a lot of suggestions with answers like:

  • “That’s just not feasible.”
  • “That can’t be done.”
  • “That doesn’t scale.”
  • “That makes things complicated.”
  • “We can’t do that.”

And all of those things may be true, but all of those statements, as written or spoken, are “shutting down the conversation” statements. They don’t brook any sort of follow-up dialogue. They tell your customer “that idea is SO bad, that I’m not even going to explain to you how bad it is and why.”

Contrast those with:

  • “That’s just not feasible, because the number of volunteers it would take to man those areas would be more than we have.”
  • “That can’t be done, because there’s a regulatory requirement to keep portions of that data private.”
  • “That doesn’t scale, because once you’ve got more than a couple hundred thousand rows in that table, your indices are going to look like shit.”
  • “That makes things complicated, because then we have to deal with two completely different products that go to the printers, two sets of inventory, etc.”
  • “We can’t do that, because the capital expenses of the widgets are too high.”

You can see how each of the second set leaves the door open to discussion. It says “Your idea is good, but we thought about that before, and we rejected it not out of hand because it’s just a bad idea, but for the following reason…,” leaving the possibility for the suggester to reply in a couple different ways:

  • “Ah, shit… I hadn’t thought of that, you’re right. Never mind.”
  • “That’s true, but maybe we don’t need that particular piece of data that’s regulatory-encumbered, we’ll just use all the non-encumbered data, and that’s actually enough.”
  • “Man, those indices are gonna suck. I wonder if there’s a way to make them easier to manage and be more efficient…?”
  • “You can probably get widgets as cheap as $0.whatever … is that more or less than what they were going for the last time you looked at this problem?”

Even if you don’t believe they are, and you rarely will — treat your customer as though they are at least as smart as you are. Yes, your company has been doing this for a long time. Yes, you’ve got really bright, really focused people working on these problems day in and day out. But you’re not the smartest people on the planet. There’s only one guy who is, and he’s definitely keeping a low profile these days it seems. Walk your customers and users through the reasons why you’ve considered that idea in the past and rejected it. Maybe they completely agree with you and just accept the answer. Maybe they point out some flaws in your internal logic, and a dialogue ensues, where it’s still a bad idea, and now you have another piece of data about why it’s a bad idea. But, maybe they have a completely novel way of solving a problem, which you haven’t thought of before. Taking that suggestion achieves two very valuable things:

  1. You’ve improved the product offering in a way that is directly valuable to your customer base. It was their idea, after all.
  2. You’ve demonstrated the willingness to do so in a very tangible, concrete fashion.

There’s certainly always going to be “vetoes”, but any time you can back up your veto with the “why”, it goes down much smoother with the folks who have to hear it.

I Declare A Fatwa On Dunkin’ Donuts

It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced this level of abysmal Customer Service.

D loves her morning coffee. But, sometimes, she wants coffee and a breakfast wrap, or a bagel, or donuts, or something. At which point, we usually pile into the car and run over to the Dunkin’ Donuts.

Neither of us is a huge “cream cheese” fan for morning bagels, so we usually order our bagels with butter. The problem is that the last four or five times we’ve brought the bagels home, we’d discover – ta-DA! – cream cheese. And since I absolutely despise cream cheese on bagels, that generally means I go without (since, on a work-from-home day, I’ve already lost enough time on a breakfast run that I can’t really justify going out and getting something else).

So this morning, when we went through the drive-thru at the Dunkin’ on Ulster Avenue in Kingston, we were very specific. Here’s how the order process went:

  • Plain Bagel, Toasted, with Butter
  • 2 Old Fashioned Donuts
  • Everything Bagel, Toasted, with Butter
  • Gingerbread Donut
  • Large French Vanilla Coffee, Regular

And, then, at the end of all that, the following missive: “PLEASE make sure the bagels have butter. Every time we order bagels with butter, we get home to find they have cream cheese on them.” The disembodied voice on the other end of the speaker says “sure, no problem.”

We pull around. I have to repeat to them the quantity and type of donuts, because apparently that got lost in translation somewhere. They give me a total, and we pay. I get my receipt, and a bag with the bagels. On the receipt, one of the bagels is listed as “PLAIN CC”.

Me: Both of those bagels have butter?
DD Cashier #1: Yes.
Me: Because this receipt says that one of them has CC.
DD Cashier #2: One butter, one cream cheese.
Me: No, both butter, just as I requested.
DD Cashier #1: Can I see that?
(we pass back to her the bag with the receipt with the bagels. She goes off and appears to check something. She comes back a minute later, handing me the bag back)
DD Cashier #1: OK, it’s all right.
(I pass the bag to D in the passenger seat, asking her “check it over.” She discovers her everything-bagel is, lo and behold, with cream cheese)
Me: (passing the everything bagel back) That certainly looks like cream cheese, not butter.
DD Cashier #1: What’s it supposed to be?
(she takes the bagel and walks away. There appears to be some discussion out of sight about what’s going on)
DD Cashier #2: The manager is getting you a refund. The problem is when you order a Combo 3, it defaults to Cream Cheese unless you say otherwise.
Me: I didn’t order a “Combo 3”. I ordered a bagel with butter, and another bagel with butter.
DD Cashier #2: I know, but just in the future, if you’re ordering a Combo 3.
Me: But I don’t. And I didn’t.
(she wanders off)
DD Manager: (handing me like 60¢ or something) Here’s your change. So you know, a Combo 3 —
Me (and D, almost in sync, shouting almost the same thing nearly at the top of our lungs now): STOP. I didn’t order a combo 3. I ordered a “bagel with butter”. And every time I order a “bagel with butter” you guys want to give me friggin’ cream cheese, and I hate cream cheese.
DD Manager: Well, it should all be fine in the future.
Me: Well, look, you guys haven’t gotten it right the last five times we’ve ordered it, and no matter how many times I said “butter” this time around you still couldn’t sort it out. So the problem is in here (making gestures towards the Dunkin’ Donuts building), and not in here (making gestures towards the car). So you’ll forgive me for doubting your guys’ ability to get it right.
(DD Manager walks away)
(we wait)
DD Manager: (looking back) Do you need something?
Me: The other bagel?
DD Manager: what other bagel?
Me: The everything bagel with butter that we sent back because it was wrong?
(some shuffling out of sight, and the Manager comes back with a bag, which I hand to D, again imploring her to check it. While this is happening, the car behind us pulls around and leaves. I don’t blame her, it’s been about 10 minutes we’ve been sitting here by now).
D: It’s butter.
Me: Great, we’re outta here.

As we pulled away, I declared Dunkin’ Donuts “dead to me.” It’s worth noting that the last fast-food joint I declared a dead-to-me fatwa on, the Boston Market, closed its doors a couple months later. That’s the kind of trendsetter I am. When I stop going places, those places go out of business.

So I’m lookin’ at you Dunkin’ Donuts. You’d better educate your staff not to change the customers’ orders into unwanted combos that actually mess up the order, and to tell your managers not to berate their customers for “ordering things wrong”, when they’re not actually doing so, or it’ll be your undoing.

Bad Customer Service Eventually Means No Customers

D and I were out doing a quick late-night grocery run this evening and noticed something which brought a small tear of joy to our eyes… the Boston Market location in Kingston was closed.
Regular readers may recall that I’ve had a few problems with their customer service in the past. It was just over three years ago that D and I committed to “no more Boston Market, no matter how damned good their food is,” because we were tired of always being frustrated or disappointed.
Seeing that the Kingston location had collapsed and closed was a sweet sweet moment of joy at the way Bad Customer Service comes back to bite you in the ass at the end of the day…

So Much For Delta Airlines Being My New Airline Of Choice

As I mentioned a couple months back, when American Airlines pulled out of both ALB and SWF, I was looking for a new airline to be my “carrier of choice”. I had been a fiercely loyal AA customer for seven years but now they simply weren’t convenient for me to use.
After a lot of recommendations, I ended up choosing Delta airlines to give them a shot at being “my go-to airline” when I booked my flight to San Diego for the LISA conference next week.
Sadly, that was a mistake.
From an e-mail I sent to a bunch of Delta Airlines executives, all of whose e-mail addresses were marked as undeliverable….

I am scheduled to depart for San Diego this coming Friday. Throughout the entire process, I have had a confirmed aisle-seat assignment. I *always* have an aisle seat. I simply won’t book a reservation without a confirmed aisle seat. I’m broad in the torso and the aisle affords me a level of comfort which I simply cannot achieve in either a window or middle seat.
On the second leg of my flight, Flight 11, I had an assignment of 15C, as of 9/27/2008. This morning, as I checked my schedule to make sure it had not changed, I noticed that my seat assignment had vanished. Worse yet, there were no seats available for me to select at all.
I called Delta customer service, who put me in an exit row seat. It was not until later that I discovered the representative had assigned me a middle seat (19B). Worse still, even though seat 19C, an aisle seat, is available, I am unable to select that seat as it is a “Coach Choice” seat.
I spoke to the reservations customer service department, and the representative informed me that my only option was to ask at the ticket counter for an aisle seat and — essentially — hope that nobody had paid for an aisle seat on this flight. If I want to guarantee myself the aisle seat, such as I had for free when I made the reservation, I have to check in online tomorrow and pay for it. At my request, the representative transferred me to his supervisor, who also claimed she was unable to give me any sort of aisle seat. When I asked her to make sure I understood her clearly — that I had once had an aisle seat assignment that I didn’t have to pay for, but now if I wanted one I had to either pay for it or gamble that nobody else had done so when I arrived at the ticket counter on Friday — she confirmed that those were my options.
Frankly, this is unacceptable to me. I find it inconceivable that I am now being asked to pay for something which I already had for free before your airline took it away. The “company line” may be that the equipment changed, and that may be true, but at the end of the day, that’s not something I necessarily want or need to care about. I had an aisle seat, and you’ve got aisle seats to spare, but you’ve set those aside for people who are willing to shell out extra cash, and you won’t give me one even though you took my aisle seat away when you changed the equipment.
This is my first time I’ve ever purchased a ticket on Delta Airlines. I had previously been a loyal American Airlines customer for seven years, and the only reason I changed carriers was because American had pulled out of both of my local airports (SWF and ALB). I chose Delta after asking the blog community for advice on which airline offered great customer service, convenience, etc. [link], and Delta was recommended, publicly and privately, by people whose advice I trust. However, my first taste of the Delta customer service experience is giving me cause to wonder if my blog readers were all crazy or something.
I don’t think I’m asking for too much for you to free up a Coach Choice aisle seat and let me have it free, before they all get snatched up by travelers at online check-in. At this time, seat 19C, directly next to my assigned 19B, is still available, as are nine other Coach Choice aisle seats. Failing that, there are currently 14 free seats available in business class, any of which would be satisfactory.
I would like someone to contact me ASAP, to try and get this cleared up before my flight. I can be reached at $PHONE or at $EMAIL.
Thank you very much for your attention in this matter.
Derek J. Balling

Bummer. I wish I’d convinced my boss to let me take Amtrak cross-country to the conference….

How To Lose A Sale, The Staples Way

It feels like forever since I’ve walked out of a store in a huff. 🙂
I stopped in the local Staples this evening, on the way to doing some work in the data-center. The p-Touch labeler had run out of ribbon when I was there last and I was going to walk in, grab one, and expense it later. Easy.
So I walk in, find my ribbon, and go up to the register. I get in line RIGHT behind a dad who is stocking up for school. He has a shopping cart FULL of tiny little items which are clearly for his two children. Now, if I’m him, I notice the guy standing behind me with one item and I let him go first, but hey, he’s got two kids to wrangle and I’m sure he didn’t notice me. It’s all cool.
This is the only register with its light lit, but I look down the row and see two other registers with people standing behind them, and no lines, with a third employee near both of them. As I walk over, I can tell that they’re just standing around bullshitting, it’s clear from the conversation.
I ask them “Are any of you guys actually open?”. It is at this point that they all stop jabbering, and start focus on their cleaning, or sorting or whatever the hell it was they were pretending to do. One of them says, “oh she’ll take care of you over there,” gesturing to the sole cashier who’s going to be occupied for the next 20 minutes dealing with 300 tiny pencils and pens.
“Ah,” I said, “I see,” and tossed my pTouch ribbon towards the nearest flat surface (which I think was a display stand for some obviously unrelated product) and walked out. I proceeded to drive up the road 100′ to the Office Depot, where I found it for $1.00 less and got a whole lot better service, in and out in three minutes.
I’m sure those little mallrat teenagers were like, “oh, man, that oldster was such a dick man!!!” or something stupid like that. But, for me, the “Easy Button” answer was “Go to Office Depot”.

UPS QuantumView Notify Deemed “Useless”

quan·tum – \ˈkwän-təm\ – 2 a: any of the very small increments or parcels into which many forms of energy are subdivided

With a name like QuantumView you might suspect that UPS’ package tracking notification system would give you really fine-grained detail on the current status of your package (either as a shipper, or as a recipient). You’ll get these wonderful e-mail message letting you know when the status of your package changes throughout the shipping process. For instance, I got one this morning:

Now this seems all well and good except it put me in a panic. Why? Because it made me think perhaps the shipper had double-shipped the item. Why might it make me think that?

The e-mail message, dated just eight minutes prior to my taking a screenshot for this blog entry, is letting me know that “tomorrow your package will arrive!” What’s important here is that tomorrow was my scheduled delivery date, but UPS got it here faster. This means that QuantumView Notify isn’t looking at the real status, but the scheduled status.
In other words, QuantumView Notify doesn’t tell you jack-shit about where your package is. It tells you wonders about where it should be according to some stuff it determined when the shipper originally dropped off the package, not taking into account any changes at all that happened afterwards. So, if we all lived in a perfect fantasy world where Brown never lost or misdirected packages, or if they never got delayed by weather, missed flights, or slow customs agents, then this UPS service would be sweet. Instead though, since we live in the real world, it’s tits-on-a-bull useless.

How To Lose A Customer, The Classmates Way, I have always thought, was such a great, simple, idea. Make the barrier to entry low for people to register themselves as being part of a given high school or college class, let former classmates reconnect after “all these years”, etc., etc. Sitting in the middle collecting money from the people who actually want to originate messages, or set up reunions is just “Easy Money”, especially if it’s done right.
However, like a lot of people, I know that “everyone I give my e-mail address to, or at least most, re-sell that information to other people, even when I tell them not to.” It’s just a fact of life. So, since I own my own domain, I create custom addresses for different companies. American Express might have one address. My credit union has a different one. Then, if I get spam, I can look at the recipient and see “who sold my address against my wishes and gets to lose my business.”
Amusingly, this isn’t about that particular problem with Classmates. Classmates has been fastidious about not sharing my address with anyone.
However, they do now seem to have a problem with the fact that my address they’ve got on file is classmates@XXXXXXXXXX. They tell me “that address is denied.” When I tried to get them to explain why it’s denied, what I got back is crazy-talk:

A recent audit of our database revealed that the vast majority of registrations that were using Classmates as the username were not legitimate registrations, but instead were bogus registrations listing the names of people who do not really exist. This resulted in large numbers of fake names being added to the various directories on our site.
Since our members rely on our ability to keep them connected with other members, it has always been a top priority to ensure that our database is as accurate and up-to-date as it can possibly be. As such, the decision was made to deny anyone from registering on our site using an email address that contains Classmates. This decision has helped our efforts to establish a database that contains only the names of “real” people that our members can actually connect with.

I’m sorry, how again does restricting the use of “classmates” in the e-mail address prevent people from signing up fictitiously? Short answer: It doesn’t.
Long answer, though, is that in reality, it’s’s way of ensuring that addresses which are submitted to it don’t explicitly tag themselves as “being given to classmates”. In other words, they want my “real” address, and not the alias, so that there’s no ability in the future to track down if they sell my contact info to someone else.
So, I told them to either allow me to use that address, or they’d lose my business. Frankly, these days, Google is a lot more useful for “high school reconnecting” than Classmates is, so it’s not like they’re bringing a lot to the table. They told me no. Oh, well, c’est la vie.